Colorful Expressions

by Nancy Jane Moore

Back when I was practicing law in Wichita Falls, Texas, a divorce client of mine described her husband thusly:

That man is useless as tits on a boar hog.

She didn’t say it to be funny. She just talked like that.

Now much as I’d like to work that phrase into conversation — I can think of a number of people who fit that description — it would be obvious that I was saying it on purpose to get a laugh. I can talk Texan, but that particular expression would still sound wrong coming from me.

Besides I’d probably have to explain it to city folk who don’t know “boar” is the term for a male hog. (Also a male raccoon, btw.)

Explaining the context is one of the problems with an expression I do use regularly when another driver does something stupid on the highway:

Where’d you get your driver’s license, Sears and Roebuck?

To understand that line, you have to know that Sears was once Sears and Roebuck, and that even if you lived 100 miles from the nearest wide place in the road (an expression meaning a place with a gas station, grocery store, maybe a post office, and not much else) you could order anything anyone could possibly need out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog. Including, at one point, a house to put it all in.

It also helps to know that there was a time when you didn’t have to take a test for a driver’s license.

Now I remember the Sears catalog, even though we lived outside of Houston and did most of our shopping in stores. I don’t remember the time before driving tests — in fact, I remember taking driver’s ed in school in preparation for mine — but I know my father never had to take one.

I suspect that expression doesn’t make any sense to people who do all their mail order business online. The world has shifted. It still expresses my feelings for those drivers, though.

Another expression I actually use depends on an understanding of the cultural difference between New York and Texas (though with the rapid urban growth in Texas, that cultural difference is more myth than reality these days). Talking of something that is about to happen very quickly, one says:

In a New York minute.

Believe me, a New York minute is much less than 60 seconds long. In fact, I once found a great definition of it: a New York minute is the period of time between the moment the light turns green and the first car behind you honks.

There’s another expression from my Wichita Falls days that I wish I could work into conversation, one that explains why it gets so damned cold there:

There’s nothin’ between here and the North Pole ‘cept a barbed-wire fence, and it’s usually down.

Anyone who has ever lived on the Great Plains knows what I mean: the north wind just comes whipping down, and even as far south as Wichita Falls, it chills your bones.

And obviously a barbed-wire fence (I was in college before I realized it was “barbed-wire,” not “bob-wire,” which is how it’s said) is not much protection even when it isn’t down.

It’s an extremely accurate description.

I saw another great expression the other day on the World’s Most Dangerous Beauty Salon, a professional political organization that demonstrates the humor necessary to survive as a Texas liberal:

In truth, he got beat so badly that he has to unzip his pants to see out.

(This was said about Rick Perry’s debate performances. You can read the whole thing here.)

I may be able to figure out a way to work that one into conversation. Though Juanita Jean, proprietor of the Beauty Salon, did point out in an earlier post that at least one editor didn’t understand it. Seems to me the meaning is obvious.

Colorful expressions aren’t limited to Texas or even the South. In fact, my favorite insult is French:

Comment va Mademoiselle votre mere?

Which sounds like a polite way of asking someone how their mother is, except for that devastating “Mademoiselle” in there. It’s such a nice way to call someone a bastard. (And yeah, I know there are some missing accents in there, but I’m too lazy to put them in and anyway I always had trouble in French class remembering which ones went where.)

So what are some of your favorite expressions, dated or not, in English or otherwise? I’d like to expand my collection and maybe find a few more I can use.


Flashes of IlluminationFlashes of Illumination, a collection of my short-short fiction, is now available here from Book View Cafe. This 52-story ebook collects the flash fiction I published weekly during the first year of Book View Cafe, and adds in a few later stories as well.

My novella Changeling remains available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story.

Both books are $2.99 and available in four DRM-free formats: mobi, epub, prc, and pdf.


About Nancy Jane Moore

Nancy Jane Moore's science fiction novel, The Weave, is now available in print and ebook versions from Aqueduct Press. Some of her short stories are now appearing as reprints on Curious Fictions. She is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her BVC ebooks can be found here. She also has short stories and essays in most of the BVC anthologies. In addition to writing fiction, Nancy Jane, who has a fourth degree black belt in Aikido, teaches empowerment self defense. She is at work on a self defense book that emphasizes non-fighting skills.


Colorful Expressions — 10 Comments

  1. Nancy Jane, I got a great kick out of your article.

    I think Juanita Jean just became my current favorite website. Like I need another website to read thank you very much.

    I appreciate the phrase “he looked like he was rode hard and put away wet,” which I first heard on TV from Dan Rather.


  2. Ah, the salt in the linguistic stew. Nice one! A few favourites:

    “About as much use as a chocolate teapot.”
    “Rough as ten bears.” (Welsh, notably used of a certain kind of pub.)
    “Looked like (s)he’d been dragged through a hedge backwards.”
    “Waste of carbon/oxygen.” (Geek)
    “Wouldn’t trust X with a burnt-out match.”

    I’m personally partial to comic-intensive forms for heavy venting (“…chocolate teapot, only without the tasting-good bit!”; “…three gooseberry bushes backwards!”*; or even the hyper-geeky, hyper-insulting “Waste of ruddy interval!”).

    * It is a messy job I have.

  3. Vonda, I’m glad you like Juanita Jean. Reading her helps me cope with the day’s news. And I suspect Dan Rather is responsible for introducing “rode hard and put up wet” into the national conversation.

    Gray, those are great suggestsions. I think I could work “rough as ten bears” into conversation and I like “wouldn’t trust X with a burnt-out match.”

    I forgot “all hat and no cattle,” which I think gets at the essence of people who talk a good game (another one).

  4. As you note, all of these delicious turns of phrase are so very local, in both time and place. This makes them difficult to transplant, but so very useful if you can wedge them in somehow. I think it’s Heinlein who was particularly good at modifying a colorful expression for use in Moon colonies and such. “About as much use as a chocolate pressure suit” would be a fine adaptation.

    And of course if you -want- to depict a different time or mindset there is nothing better than le mot juste. I have spent happy hours paging through dictionaries of slang, looking for just the right pre-War denigratory comment or profane turn of phrase. (My favorite of the latter: “Fuck an old rat.” No context, alas, but I think it’s merely a profane exclamation.)

  5. “He’s sharp as a beachball,” is one (I believe) I coined myself when I was young.

    And I tend to go with either “…box of Cracker Jack,” or “…cereal box,” for sources of bad drivers’ licenses.

  6. Being part Russian and ex-Soviet, I tend to think some people bought their driver’s licences for fifty sheep (yea, that was a widespread practice in the No Longer Islamic But Soviet Socialist Republics; you could get any university degree, too, if you had enough sheep).

    And the Russian part of my family was seriously colourful in their speech. I have adopted ‘Oh Lord, Thou see this and there is no thunder!’

    My native language has pretty alliteration in ‘lazy as a dragon’, ‘I need it like a pig needs a saddle’, and ‘useless like a harmonica to a corpse’. And there’s alliteration in asking, ‘Did you get your roof beams knotted up?’ — meaning, you know, bats in the belfry or such.

  7. I love these sorts of expressions!

    My favorite was my grandmother’s, from her childhood on a Minnesota farm: “She’s so poor she don’t have a pot to piss in or a winda to throw it out of.”

    For years, as a kid, I tried to figure out how anyone could throw a toilet out a window, until I learned about chamber pots. An aspect of life unshuttered at that realization.

  8. Sherwood, there’s a whole historical education in some of these statements. Not to mention a linguistic one — I wish I had some Russian so I could hear the ones ganna listed in the original.

    And yeah, nothing says we can’t make up our own!

  9. Back to the drivers license. My Dad didn’t have one. He just drove farm trucks and tractors when he needed, until he joined the Navy. No need to drive for a number of years. Then just before WWII he found he needed one to get bonded to captain a merchant marine ship.

    In those days the test was hand written, essay style, no multiple choice or fill in the little boxes. His answers were framed in the Boston DMV for decades. When turning the vessel to the right, one need only pause to verify sea lanes are clear before turning to starboard.